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How Should Catholics Think About the Immigration Crisis?

April 16, 2024


In a message that addressed the “crisis of migration,” Pope Francis identified a “twofold moral responsibility” of states in the abstract. First, to “protect the rights of its citizens.” And, second, “to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants.” The pontiff teaches that both goals must be “balanced.” How should Catholic Americans think about how to balance these goals in immigration policy?

In Catholic social teaching, the ordering concept for sound policy is the common good, which is a kind of civic concord that can be concisely summarized in the formula “justice and peace.” The common good of justice and peace is rooted in the foundational principle of the dignity of the person. The ground of dignity lies in persons being bearers of the image of God. To be an image-bearer is to be fundamentally owed something in the order of justice in one’s relationship with other human beings. The common good therefore includes respect for the fundamental or natural rights of persons, qua individuals and as members of social wholes. Genuine human or natural rights are thus typically packaged with some natural obligation that corresponds to the right. So for example, an unborn child’s natural right to life is correlative with the mother’s, physician’s, and civil society’s obligation of care and protection of that life. Fundamental natural or human rights set certain boundaries for prudent policy. 

Among the rights grounded in human dignity is the right to emigrate. A person may judge his country to be sufficiently unjust or otherwise incompatible with the pursuit of happiness, that he chooses to leave. Hence, it is a grave injustice for a polity to forbid persons to emigrate, as was the case in Eastern Europe under Soviet tyranny. On the other hand, peoples have a right to self-determination, which the Church recognizes as a cornerstone of international order and peace. Concomitant with a people’s authority is a right to maintain its own distinctive culture, language, and traditions. This provides a logical ground for a people to rightfully exercise sovereignty over a territory by subjecting the movement of persons and goods across its territorial borders to the rule of law. Similarly, a range of other relevant fundamental rights, such as the right to form a family and raise one’s children, to work and earn a just wage, and others, are foundational components of the common good.

Charity regards first those who are nearer to us, including our family and countrymen.

Within the boundaries of first principles, there is a significant degree of legislative freedom, which entails that the principal virtue of legislators is prudence, or more precisely, political prudence. What is meant by this virtue? As Thomas Aquinas teaches, prudence is a virtue about knowledge directed to action, the means to achieve virtuous ends. Political prudence then concerns which policies would best conduce to the common good. Simplifying Aquinas’ teaching, prudence is substantially knowledge of the relevant factors, of past and present circumstances, of causes and effects, as well as foresight of likely outcomes of various courses of action. Which immigration policies would best balance the rights and interests of citizens and migrants is thus a prudential question. Inasmuch as no person is infallible, reasonable persons of good will can therefore differ as to what is the most politically prudent policy with regard to immigration. 

Immigration touches on so many areas of relevance to the common good that its effects are multifaceted, complex, and the range of positive and negative dimensions can only be limned. On the one hand, millions of undocumented migrants work in various sectors of the economy that most Americans would agree are “essential” to the well-being of the country, like agriculture, food production and service, housing, and health care. And many Americans count undocumented migrants as their neighbors, friends, fellow parishioners, and even family members who contribute to the common good in countless ways. On the other hand, unlawful immigration has coincided with alarming trends in such areas as child labor, crime and safety, welfare policy and strained resources, housing shortages, drug enforcement and the fentanyl crisis, human smuggling and trafficking that has had deadly consequences, and even threats to national security from terrorism

It is beyond the scope of this article to speak in detail to every policy area affected by immigration. But we can make a few points that can help guide prudential policymaking. First, is it consonant with Catholic social teaching to place any restriction on migration? The answer readily follows from a people’s sovereign right of self-determination: yes. But, the “right” number of migrants to legally permit is a matter of determinatio under natural law principles. While there are typically extreme upper and lower limits in matters of determinatio, there is no way of mathematically deducing from moral first principles an exact number that justice requires

At this point, it is worth pausing to note that some prominent social scientists, such as Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik, have defended global open borders, and argued that any cap on legal migration is unjust. Such a system, they argue, would drastically increase economic productivity, global GDP, reduce economic inequality, and effectively eliminate absolute poverty. While their empirical claims could be disputed, suppose they were granted. Even in that case, merely utilitarian arguments would fall short because man is more than mere homo economicus. Caplan and Naik also offer a libertarian argument—namely, that no “society” has a right to “restrict capitalist acts between consenting adults.” The scare quotes around “society” betray the weakness of this argument, as it depends on an emaciated account of social reality in which only individuals are real. But that is false. Societies like the family, the church, and bodies politic are real social wholes that cannot be accurately described as mere aggregates of individuals. We are not monads, and obviously it is false to assume that all economic contracts between consenting adults are morally licit.

The duty to love the stranger as oneself does not upend but rather flows from properly ordered love of self, family, community, etc.

Failing in these arguments, they offer a “Christian” argument for open borders, quoting the Bible: “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35); “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12–14). “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21); “You must have the same regulations for both the foreigner and the native-born” (Numbers 9:14); “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The first point to be made is that, as I have argued in another place, Bible proof texting is inherently perilous in public policy debates, since the Bible does not provide a comprehensive political philosophy. Even so, on their face, none of these “proof texts” individually or collectively indicate that Christians are “obliged” to support open borders. It is curious that libertarians who deny the reality of social wholes would fail to see that the first two passages and similar precepts are addressed to individual Christians, admonishing believers to have a readiness of the will to perform acts of charity. And nothing in the other passages forbids a state from regulating the entrance of aliens into its territory. Moreover, the Bible teaches that there is an order to charity, and the duty to love the stranger as oneself does not upend but rather flows from properly ordered love of self, family, community, etc. (see 1 Timothy 5:8). Hence, as Thomas Aquinas teaches, charity regards first those who are nearer to us, including our family and countrymen. In this way, charity, like grace, perfects but does not destroy nature. Hence, if one has good reasons to believe that open borders are harmful to one’s family, community, and country, then it is entirely consistent with Christian charity to oppose open borders.

At the same time, Christians must have a readiness of will to be charitable to those in need, including the migrant who is already living among them. And indeed, there are countless examples of Christians doing just that in this country every day. 

So how in fact does the United States draw the line with regard to legal migration? Currently, it allows about a million visas to be issued each year across a range of categories, including permanent residency, family visas, and work visas. This is a specification of the principle of assisting and welcoming migrants within the bounds of prudence. One can make a reasonable case for changing this number. But one thing does seem clear: the authority over whether to increase or decrease that number, in the American constitutional order, lies with the American people, acting via their representatives in Congress to legislate according to enumerated constitutional powers. Under our Constitution, it is not within the authority of (say) an unhinged executive refusing to enforce the law, or do-gooder unelected bureaucrats, or an international NGO, or the UN, or even the Vatican itself. This is a primary reason that unlawful immigration is contrary to basic rights: it violates a people’s right to self-determination because it contravenes a people’s authoritative determination of lawful movement of goods and persons into its territory. It must also be pointed out that this argument is not a mere cover for racist white resentment, as some racialist progressives facilely believe. Indeed, 72 percent of Latinos believe that it should be harder for immigrants to overstay visas and remain in the US illegally.

There is broad agreement across the political spectrum that there is a “crisis” at the border. This has been largely an effect of policy changes over the past few years. When President Biden took office in 2021, he annulled the “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers and reinstated “Catch and Release.” From 2021 to 2023, we know at least five million migrants crossed the border. Several hundred thousand more have crossed in 2024, and these numbers don’t include “unknown gotaways,” but we know that around two million are “known gotaways.” In short, a very substantial number are certainly unlawful migrants whose names, countries of origins, whereabouts, and purposes in coming to the US we know little or nothing about. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more who have been apprehended at the border have claimed a legal right to remain as asylees. Why? Because the Biden Administration releases asylum seekers into the interior of the country, often with a paid plane ticket to their desired destination. And this has incentivized people to migrate on the assumption that if they make it into the interior of the US, they will evade deportation. 

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A successful asylum claim—which must be based on persecution on the basis of factors like one’s race, religion, political opinion, or membership in some persecuted group—is a basis for attaining lawful status. However, most of these claims are fraudulent. In 2023, for example, only 14 percent of asylum claims were granted. Unsurprisingly, reports from those who have actually gone and spoken to migrants making the dangerous trek through Central America have found that most migrants are economic refugees seeking economic opportunities—but this is not a category that qualifies one for asylum under American law.

Those who defend Biden’s Catch and Release rule would argue that it is a more compassionate policy. But the drug cartels in Mexico have weaponized American compassion against itself. According to the testimony of Border Patrol agents, they traffic busloads of migrants to one area to distract the Border Patrol who come to pick them up and process them as asylum-seekers, then freely flood fentanyl across the border in another place. Fentanyl overdose is the leading cause of death among 18–45-year-old Americans. All of this is knowingly and nefariously permitted by the Mexican government.

There are various policies that could be prudential measures to address the crisis. They could include: placing a cap on annual asylum claims, requiring asylum claimants to await their hearing in Mexico or a safe country they passed through, or even a temporary detainment facility in the US. They may also include designating the Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, which would provide US law enforcement and prosecutors with more powers to disrupt and dismantle them. And, yes, it could be prudent to erect physical barriers in areas along the border in order to help impede the traffic of drugs and persons. Before the election of 2016, there was actually a pretty wide, bipartisan consensus on this point, until “the Wall” became demonized through association with Trump. But walls were not invented in 2016. As any Catholic who has been to Vatican City knows, it is not unreasonable for the Catholic to believe that walls make good neighbors.  

The order of charity supports hardening the border first. Then, it is entirely reasonable to discuss how to balance our responsibilities toward migrants by, for example, expanding caps on legal migration, work authorization visas, and even opening new pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants who have demonstrated a desire to become American and peaceably contribute to the common good. It is possible for America to balance its duties to citizens and immigrants. For we are a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.